Once upon a time, the hardware tone module was king of “desktop music production.” A wide range of options were available from pro-level tone modules to desktop tone generators to ISA/PCI cards. The General MIDI (GM) standard came about in this era because people wanted to have consistent playback across hardware platforms.
Every manufacturer offered one or more modules. Two players — Roland and Yamaha — jumped in big. Each company offered desktop tone modules adhering to their own semi-proprietary extensions of the General MIDI standard. Roland had its GS while Yamaha had its XG.
Then, software plug-ins killed the tone module.
Native, computer-based signal processing became fast enough that hardware tone generation was no longer required.
Roland GS, meanwhile, has gone on relatively hard times. Today, Roland offers two products that are up-front GS: Mobile Studio Canvas and Sound Canvas for iOS. The Mobile Studio Canvas is a pricey little number that streets out at $429 USD. Not exactly cheap. Sound Canvas for iOS is an iOS app supporting Inter-App Audio and Audiobus. Roland claim that the app and its host can act as a tone module through a suitable Core MIDI compatible interface. Mobile Studio Canvas is $19.99 through the Apple App Store.
The Virtual Sound Canvas was a VST- and DXi-compatible, multi-timbral soft synth. Unfortunately, for desktop users, the Roland Virtual Sound Canvas (VSC-MP1) was discontinued.
Yamaha XG is battered, but is still breathing. XG-based hardware tone modules are nearly extinct. (Check ebay…) However, current arrangers from Yamaha offers XG compatibility, even if it’s only the XGlite subset. In fact, XG is the de facto voice architecture on arranger keyboards. Edit a voice on an arranger and you are tweaking XG parameters. Of course, this means that you must have space for an arranger on your desktop. A half-rack 1U tone module is far more compact and desktop-friendly.
“Pro” keyboardists still turn up their noses at GS, XG and arrangers. A large part of this is guilt by association with General MIDI. Beneath it all in Yamaha-land, the synths and the arrangers share hardware technology such as CPUs and tone generation circuits. XG is essentially a wrapper around pro-level samples and tone generation.
XG also lives at the heart of the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS) app. MMS has a software-based XG engine inside. It supports 9 reverb, 4 chorus and 26 variation effects. Yamaha cut down the XGlite sound set to just 42 GM voices plus 42 or so synth voices. In case you’re interested, I’ve documented many of the XG features in MMS here:
MMS demonstrates that it’s possible to host XG on an iPad with an ARM processor. Will Yamaha answer Roland’s Sound Canvas for iOS?
Needing an XG-compatible VST soft synth on Windows, I went in search of one and stumbled onto a retro cult. Turns out, there are a whole lot of other people who would like an XG-compatible VSTi on Windows, too.
First, there are enthusiasts who are trying to resurrect the S-YXG50 soft synthesizer on Windows 7 (and earlier). The S-YXG50 uses either a 2MByte or 4MByte wave table, so we’re not talking stellar sound quality. I experimented with S-YXG50 on Windows 7 with no success.
Then, there are enthusiasts who take old daughter boards (DB50XG or DB60XG) and fashion standalone tone modules from them. (Just add a power supply and a MIDI interface.) These daughter boards have a 4MByte wave table. Like XG tone modules, XG daughter boards are scarce as hen’s teeth.
The issue that always rears its head with this old tech is the availability of drivers. You can find the occasional Yamaha-based sound card or SW1000XG, but driver support usually stops with Windows XP (at best).
Finally, another sub-cult has discovered the joys of Yamaha MidRadio. MidRadio is a MIDI player application for Windows 8 (and earlier). It is XGlite compatible with 361 regular voices, 10 drum kits and 2 SFX kits. A few of the regular voices are so-called “panel voices” in the PSR E-series — an added bonus! Wave table size is about 11MBytes. And, guess what? It sounds pretty darned good. Here are links to the list of voices and effects in MidRadio version 7:
If you try MidRadio, be prepared to use Google translate and be prepared to wade through a Japanese-only user interface.
A few intrepid souls discovered that the MidRadio sound engine (SGP2.DLL) is just a few bricks short of being a VST software instrument (VSTi). They developed a patch which turns the DLL into a VSTi. Yes, the patch works and I can send XG-compliant MIDI from Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live and VSTHost to SGP2. It plays rather nicely.
In general, I do not recommend this approach. Anytime you download a patch from the Web and execute it, you put the privacy and security of your computer and its information at risk.
Given this enormous red flag, I wish that Yamaha would sell an XG-compatible VSTi for Windows and Mac. There are users waiting for properly a supported, street legal XG plug-in soft synth at a reasonable price. And certainly, we wouldn’t turn down a free one.